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L.A. County Budget Plan Is Unveiled

Proposal includes loss of 2,000 jobs and decreases in hospital, library and law enforcement services to shrink an $800-million gap.

April 15, 2003|Sue Fox and Daren Briscoe | Times Staff Writers

Los Angeles County must cut law enforcement, health, recreation, library and other public services to close an $800-million hole in its budget for the coming fiscal year, according to a spending plan unveiled Monday.

Under the $16.5-billion proposal, hospitals and libraries, jails and a probation camp are all threatened with closure. Fewer lifeguards would be on hand to patrol county beaches, street maintenance would be scaled back and the prosecution of domestic violence, sex crimes and other offenses would be reduced.

The county's fiscal year 2003-04 budget plan, which must be approved by the Board of Supervisors by June 30, comes as the state grapples with a dire budget gap of its own.

Cautioning that Los Angeles may face additional cuts once California's budget is released later this year, the county's top administrator warned that the worst could be yet to come.

"Because the county government is tied by shirt strings to the state, we will suffer as long as they do," said Chief Administrative Officer David Janssen. "And we could suffer significantly more, depending on what they do to balance their budget."

More than 2,000 county jobs would be wiped from the books under the plan Janssen released Monday, but for the most part the government would try to avoid layoffs through attrition, except in its troubled health department. Salaries countywide would be frozen.

In all, the proposed cuts total about $467 million. Officials plan to tap the county's reserve funds for an additional $307 million. The rest of the $800 million shortfall will be filled by deferred maintenance and other cost-saving moves.

The budget forecast has darkened considerably from that of the boom years of the late 1990s, when the county rebounded from an earlier cash crunch and enjoyed a four-year run of budget growth.

Now, for the second year in a row, the county must make significant cuts as it confronts a difficult climate of declining revenues, rising costs and growing caseloads.

With the economy sputtering, sales tax proceeds and interest earnings on county investments have slipped, leading to a $100-million drop in local revenue. At the same time, workers' compensation costs and health insurance costs for retired county workers have soared.

Also draining county coffers are the increasing numbers of poor, sick and elderly people relying on government services for help. Some county-run programs mandated by the state have rising caseloads that are quickly outstripping the money earmarked to pay for them.

Among the hardest hit Los Angeles County agencies is the Sheriff's Department, which, like some other departments, is expected not only to absorb large cost increases due to inflation and workers' compensation, but to cope with fresh cuts.

In the sheriff's case, that means $61.4 million in cost increases, plus $14 million in newly proposed reductions, for a total budget reduction of $75.4 million.

Chief Paul Tanaka, who oversees the sheriff's budget, said that cost increases alone would force the department to reduce jail capacity, cut security services in the courts and eliminate 81 community-policing deputies.

"They call it absorption," he said, "but if you're a resident of L.A. County, you'd call it a cut, because it means fewer people available to protect your safety."

Some of the pain has already struck, as county leaders moved late last year to head off looming deficits, particularly in the health department.

The county has already shuttered 16 health clinics and begun the process of closing two hospitals, High Desert Hospital and Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Center, as part of a major overhaul expected to save $174.5 million.

Hundreds of layoffs will likely follow, although health officials have yet to announce them.

Other departments, such as Children and Family Services, have tried to save money by trimming overtime, cutting back on employee training and eliminating vacant positions.

"We balanced our budget by cutting nonessential services, things that don't affect service to children," said Louise Grasmehr, a department spokeswoman.

And, as Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky pointed out, California's budget mess will soon land at the county's doorstep, potentially saddling local governments up and down the state with billions in additional costs.

"The $800-million problem presented today is only going to be the beginning," Yaroslavsky said. "To the extent that the state clobbers us, our constituents are going to get clobbered."

Some county departments that managed to skirt the budget ax last year now find themselves on the chopping block again.

The county's public library system, for example, is targeted for a $7-million cut -- just like last year. That amount reflects inflationary costs for employee salaries, benefits and library equipment that the county is no longer able to bear.

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